Why Is A Marathon 26.2 Miles Long? History Of Marathon Distance

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Whether you’re in marathon training mode or simply curious about the history of the event, the answer to the question ‘Why Is A Marathon 26.2 Miles Long?’ is not as straightforward as it seems.

For starters, the exact distance of a marathon is 26.2188 miles, or 42.195 kilometers.

Not exactly a common distance, is it?

The story of the marathon length is one that takes place over millennia and is influenced by three major events – starting in ancient Greece and finishing in front of Queen Alexandra in 1908. 

So, let’s get going . . . 

Why Is A Marathon 26.2 Miles Long – The Marathon Distance Explained In 3 Events

Event #1: The Battle of Marathon

The inspiration for the marathon as a running event dates back to a Greek myth from 490 BC.

Marathon is actually a small Greek town, still standing today with around 7,000 inhabitants.

Back in ancient Greece, it was the site of the Battle of Marathon – a huge clash between the Greeks and the invading Persians.

Despite the Persians heavily outnumbering the Greeks, the Greeks won the battle.  This was a critical victory for them in pushing back the invaders.

How Long Is A Marathon Greece 1
The town of Marathon today

The popular myth goes that when the Greeks won the battle, they sent a messenger, Pheidippides, to Athens to deliver the good news. Pheidippides ran the entire 25 miles from Marathon to Athens.

After he announced ‘Victory!’ to the awaiting Greeks, he collapsed of exhaustion and died soon thereafter.

Several sources contest the accuracy of these events of 490 BC, but the myth was popularised and became one of the enduring, universally-told tales of Ancient Greece – and thus the story was born.

how long is a marathon pheidippides
A depiction of Phidippides, Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869

The distance between Marathon and Athens is around 25 miles – depending on which route you take. But we know that’s not the accepted marathon length.

For the next part of the story, let’s fast-forward from Ancient Greece to Athens in 1896.

Another article you might enjoy: When Was Running Invented?

Event #2: The Olympic Games of 1896

The first modern Olympic games were organized, to take place in Athens in 1896.

The intention was to host the world’s best and strongest athletes in a global event, inspired by the ancient Greek Olympic contests held 2000 years earlier.

Athens 1896 how long is a marathon
Athen 1896 Olympic Stadium, the first modern Olympic games

While devising the various athletic events, a French semantic professor called Michel Bréal proposed a running event that would recreate the mythical journey of Pheidippides.

The Olympic planning committee loved the idea. They used the same route as the messenger had purportedly used 2400 years earlier, and decided to name the event after the town where it had all started:  the modern-day marathon was born.

The first of the modern Olympic marathon races was a success – 1st place went to Spyridon Louis, who completed the roughly 25 miles in 2hrs 58mins and 50 seconds.

The 1896 Olympic games of Athens was well received and became a fixture, popping up every four years in various major cities around the world.

The marathon became a fixture of the Olympics, though at each event the marathon length would vary slightly, always hovering around the 25-mile mark.

It wasn’t until the 1908 Olympics, hosted in London, that the final distance was standardized.

Event #3: The 1908 London Olympic Games

The organizers of the 1908 Olympic Games, hosted in London, had originally planned a 26-mile route from Windsor Castle to the entrance of the White City Stadium.

However, rumor has it that Queen Alexandra specifically asked that the marathon start in the gardens of Windsor Castle so the young royals could watch it, and finish in front of the royal box at White City Stadium.

This addition at the Royal’s request added 385 yards, hence making the event 26.2188 miles.

TheLondonMarathon1908 how long is a marathon

The first-ever 26.2 mile marathon was held on the final day of the 1908 London Olympics and was not without controversy –

Dorando Pietri of Italy entered the Olympic stadium first, but was clearly exhausted – he famously collapsed several times and ran in the wrong direction.

Dorando had to be helped along by two medics and successfully crossed the finish line first.

However, several other competitors complained that he had been unfairly supported, so first place eventually went to American Johnny Hayes, who set a new Olympic record with 2 hours, 55 minutes and 18.4 seconds.

Dorando Pietri how long is a marathon
Dorando Pietri, crossing the finish line before being disqualified.   From the 1908 London Olympics the first ever 26.2-mile marathon (Image: public domain)

The Olympic committee later decided that 26.2188 miles should be the standard marathon distance for all marathon races going forward.

Johnny Hayes’ victory led to a much bigger public awareness of marathons.

The ‘Marathon Mania’ of the 20th century is well-known.

Marathons are now held everywhere from the Falkland Islands, to the historic Boston Marathon, to the Great Wall of China.   

Millions of regular people now line up at the starting line of the 26.2 mile long distance challenge, inspired by the Greek messenger.

Why is a marathon 26.2 miles long? Because of these three historic events!

How Long Is A Marathon – 4 Methods Of Measuring Marathon Length

How Long Is A Marathon (1)

Now you know why a marathon is 26.2 miles long (or 26 miles 385 yards), if you’re interested in other ways to think about the marathon length – whether it’s the number of times you’d have to run round a football pitch, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, or how it feels subjectively – then check out my post How Long Is a Marathon? 4 Methods of Measuring Marathon Length!

And for those interested in training for marathon, I’m here to help!

Check out my library of free, downloadable marathon training plans, or sign up for my free 5-Day bootcamp below!

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Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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